2 Test Series against Australia in Australia ( January – February 2019) – Lost 2-0
Tour to New Zealand ( December 2018 – January 2019) – Lost the 2 test series 1-0, lost the ODI series 3-0, and lost the sole t20 match too
At home against England (October November 2018) – lost the 3 test series 3-0, lost the ODI series 3-1 and lost the sole T20 match
The trouble with the team appears to be in all departments. Firstly, we must admit that they lost the services of players like Sangakkara, Jayawardene, Dilshen and Herath recently. That will leave a hole in any team. Having said that, the current crop of fast bowlers are breaking down with injuries once too often, there isn’t a spinner who is bowling well consistently and the same applies for the batting group. It also hasn’t helped that two of their best batters in Angelo Matthews and Dinesh Chandimal if been mostly out of the team ( Matthews regularly injured, Chandimal out of form). When the results aren’t great, heads roll. That’s what happened in the case of Chandimal as he was dropped for his own poor form. There are talks that the current coach, Hathurusingha will be replaced too. But will just replacing a coach who has been at the helm only for 5 months make do for troubles plaguing the team for a few years?
The problem is that the current woes is a result of deeper issues that needs addressing.
Clean the grass roots first
The nursery of cricket in Srilanka is the school cricket system, but all is not well here.
From a league based system, school cricket has moved towards a tournament based system with even T-20 type tournaments being played. So at an age when players should be focusing more on their techniques they are in stead already looking to practice dilscoops and ramp shots. There is even sponsorship money flowing into school cricket from ex students and parents of current students thus there is pressure on the school to retain those ‘sponsors’ by winning thus there is a lot of pressure on the children to win. This is even leading to schools importing good players from other schools. Grass Root cricket should not really be like this.
First Class cricket…should be first class
24 teams play Srilanka’s first class cricket. The general feeling is that this number is high, especially when you consider the population of the country. Many clubs do not even have their own club house or home ground but are given ‘club’ status to keep the voter base happy when its time for SLC elections. When we compare that to a much bigger country like India, where 37 teams compete in the Ranji Trophy we begin to comprehend the size vs no. of teams issue. The thought is that if there are fewer teams at the top level of first class competition, there will be fewer positions up for grabs in the top tier leading to better competition first between players to get into those teams and then the level of competition between those teams will go up too.
The state of the game on the field requires a lot of improvement as well. There is a lot to be done first, to improve the quality of pitches games are being played on.
It is not entirely surprising to find many games starting with the first over at both ends of the pitch being bowled by a spinner. Fast deteriorating pitches lead to low scoring affairs where spinners dominate and batsmen only get to face these conditions thus are found inadequately prepared for bouncier surfaces outside the country or struggle in seaming conditions. This also leads to fast bowlers just playing a support role and not really learning their craft and also not bowling long spells. Just as has been the case in the previous 4 editions, this edition’s first class season also has the top wicket takers being spinners, while each of the top 10 are finger spinners. To stem this problem, the national selectors made a request to curators all over the country to leave at least 3 to 7 millimetres of grass on the pitch at the start of day 1, after the first 2 rounds of matches in the current season had concluded. They hoped this would lead to fast bowlers bowling more overs and taking more wickets, but instead, this season has already seen 13 double tons being scored. The pitches just became batting paradises. The selectors and curators need to get together and prepare pitches that last the duration of the game and have something in it for both the fast bowlers and spinners alike.
Off those Injuries
One of the bane of the kind of pitches that are being produced is that fast bowlers are almost found surplus to requirement. That’s the reason that they are not bowling enough spells or the number of overs they should be to get their bodies used to the rigour of red ball cricket. This is leading to frequent injuries to the fast men. The talented Nuwan Pradeep is a case in point, making his debut in 2011, he has been in and out of the squad due to injuries. He had to be withdrawn from the squad in Australia recently as well due to a hamstring problem. Another fast bowler, Suranga Lakmal too injured himself during the same series and had to miss a test match. The case of Angelo Matthews and his struggles with frequent injuries is well documented. It’s one thing getting injured, its another to manage the injury of the player well, as the Indians found out with the cases of Saha and Ashwin. Srilanka cricket has to set up a proper rehab program in place for injured players.
And those who run the game
Cricket is not Sri Lanka’s national sport, but it is the most popular one. Fortunes of the team reflect on the mood of the general public. Its also the sport that attracts the maximum viewership and by that dint, the maximum commercial interest by way of sponsorship etc. Thus, much like the case with the BCCI, the office bearer posts of the Sri Lanka Cricket ( SLC) are much desired and often end up with people who are politically connected or politicians.
Its really up to these officials to take decisions for the long term good of the game. Its all well and good to change coaches and drop captains or chop and change the squad but that does not guarantee a change in fortunes if the set up, the system in place, is not geared to improve the overall standard of cricket in the country.
Cricket is the most popular sport and perhaps a cash cow for the board. It will remain so, if the performances on the field keep the country interested. The diehard fans and cricket lovers will continue to support the team but if a perpetuity of young fans thronging the stadiums ( particularly for test cricket) is to be established then performances on the field will have to improve.
There have been 4 coaches since 2015 but the performances haven’t changed, so perhaps changing coaches (while the most obvious action) is not the answer. Simply changing the personnel who then have to face the music is not the solution.
Rather than just focusing solely on retaining their chair, the office bearers have to put in a plan with concrete steps to overhaul the system. The problems highlighted above at the school and club levels will have to be addressed one by one. It is the same system which has produced the likes of Aravinda, Arjuna, Mahela, Sangakkara, Vaas and Murali but it seems not to be working now, and for a while, as the results over the last few years have shown. Thus the need of the hour is to make changes, moderations to the system, to reinvent it or modernize it if you will. The changes put in place now, will take some time to bear fruit, which is only natural.
The sports Minister, Mr. Harin Fernando, recently flew in to Australia during the nation’s tour there to meet with the team. One hopes it was to sit down with the team officials and to chart out a plan to make things better. At the very least, it showed an intent on his part to take a stock of the situation. A positive move indeed if it was not just about changing the coach again.
Let us also remind you that all is not lost, it is never as gloomy as it seems. We just have to look at two performances to remind us that the current team as well has a talented group of players with some character.
This same team, which has largely been responsible for the results as shown in the beginning of this piece, has just defeated South Africa in the first test that was played in Durban South Africa in February 2019. With that, they lead the 2 match series 1-0. True, they were behind in the game for majority of the match and it took some individual brilliance from Kusal Parera (who scored an unbeaten 153 and had a record unbeaten stand for the 10th wicket) which helped them overhall a stiff target of 304 but it showed signs of what the team is capable off. The fast bowlers also gave a good account of themselves and made good use of the conditions to restrict the South Africans to under 260 in both innings.
Then there was the performance against India in the 2017 ODI Champions’ trophy in England where the islanders easily overhauled the Indian total of 321, by just losing 3 wickets.
The team is not playing consistently well and has been poor off late, thus there is a lot of focus on what can be done and players have faced criticism. Something positive needs to come out of it, the best thing would be getting the school and first class cricket in good order again.
First Published: February 17, 2019, 3:25 PM IST